Biotech startup LambdaVision Inc. has developed an innovative, protein-based retinal implant to help patients with vision impairment issues. Innovation Destination Hartford spoke with Dr. Nicole Wagner, President and CEO of LambdaVision, about the startup’s involvement with the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program (TIP) and the advantages of tapping into Connecticut’s startup resources.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: You co-founded LambdaVision in 2009 with one of your professors from the University of Connecticut. How did you come up with the idea to create the retinal implant?
NICOLE WAGNER: It was part of my graduate work. I worked with Dr. Robert Birge, Professor of Chemistry at UConn, when I was studying for my PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology in 2007. My project was to optimize the light-activated protein, bacteriorhodopsin (BR), for application in devices.
With the emergence of optogenetics, which happened in the early 2000s, we thought of different ways we could use the protein for device architectures, specifically for neural function and retinal implants.
IDH: What makes your solution innovative?
NW: Our technology was developed to treat patients who have advanced stage macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa. Those diseases cause patients to lose their photoreceptor cells (or their rods and cones), which are the light-sensing cells of your eyes. In a healthy retina, those cells absorb light and convert it into a signal that is sent to the brain. Patients with vision impairment diseases lose their photoreceptor cells and, as a result, their eyes can’t capture light to send a visual signal to the brain.
LambdaVision uses a light-activated protein that is coated on a scaffold that is placed in the back of the eye subretinally. The protein absorbs light and in response, it pumps ions—much like your photoreceptor cells—sending a signal to the optic nerve and then to the brain.
A lot of the competing technologies are doing this using electrodes to stimulate the neural circuitry of the retina. These electrode-based technologies require wires, bulky battery packs, and goggles. Our method uses more of an organic approach, where we are using a protein that is similar to what is natively found in the eye. The protein absorbs light, which generates a signal that can stimulate the retina.
IDH: In addition to you and Dr. Birge, how big is your team?
NW: Dr. Birge and I have four other scientists working on research and development. We also have advisors and consultants to help support our business development and commercialization efforts.
IDH: LambdaVision has worked closely with UConn. What other mentorship and advisory services have you received?
NW: We’ve tried to leverage as many resources available to us as possible. We’ve been fortunate to have support from the state of Connecticut, Connecticut Innovations, and UConn. We also do some work with CURE and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) accelerator program, which helped round out our commercialization efforts.
Connecticut Innovations has been a huge supporter of the technology. We have received pre-seed funds from them, as well as matching funds for our NSF Phase I SBIR through their Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) acceleration and commercialization program. Most recently we received some funding to support an intern through their Technology Talent Bridge Internship (TTBI) program.
IDH: In addition to funding, LambdaVision has won quite a few awards. To what do you attribute your success?
NW: It’s been a busy few years! We received our Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) from the National Eye Institute in 2013. That award was a catalyst for us to start doing more research for the company. We were able to really leverage the data we collected with that funding to apply for additional grants for the company.
We applied for a National Science Foundation Phase I Award, which we received in 2015. That accelerated a lot of our development and helped us do some in vivo studies and additional proof of concept work. Then, in 2016, we applied for a National Science Foundation Phase II award, which we were recently awarded this past September. The funds from our Phase II will allow us to continue preclinical development of the implant.
Our participation in the MassChallege accelerator was the tie-in to how we won the CASIS-Boeing Prize for Technology in Space in 2016. That project is looking at manufacturing the retinal implant on the International Space Station by examining layer-by-layer manufacturing in a microgravity environment. It’s an interesting project; a lot different than what we’ve been doing. That’s been very exciting.
We also won the UConn SPARK Grant in 2016, which is a collaboration with Dr. Fotios Papadimitrakopoulos, a materials scientist at UConn. The grant was awarded to help us better look at the biostability and biocompatibility of the implant. And, in 2016, we were one of the first UConn CCEI Wolff New Venture Prize winners.
Each year we apply for a lot of different grants, some of them we received, some we didn’t. You get a lot of great feedback during the peer review process. There is no harm in trying and, of course, if you don’t apply, you’re definitely not going to get that grant.
IDH: It sounds like you’re really tapped into a lot of resources in Connecticut. How do you feel those resources are helping to shape your startup?
NW: I think Connecticut businesses are growing and the state has put a lot of resources into building entrepreneurs, startups, and new technologies.
The TIP has a brand-new facility in Farmington. We have two labs in the new incubator facility. CURE has been doing a lot of great work and is providing a number of resources to startups. Yale and UConn are also trying to build alliances with Jackson Laboratories, which is fostering new collaborations.
There’s a lot of motivation to build up resources for entrepreneurs and to help form and build startups. The resources are there, you just need to know how to tap into them.
IDH: Let’s talk about some of the challenges you’ve been facing as a startup.
NW: A lot of our challenges to date have focused on research and development, collecting the data, and doing a lot of proof of concept work.
We spend most of our time at the bench because so much research and development goes into the technology. As with any biotechnology company, a lot of preclinical, clinical, and regulatory work needs to be done.
Some startups have challenges with the market, some startups have challenges with sales. For us, there’s a huge market out there and there’s a huge need for this type of technology. Macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa affect millions of people globally, and unfortunately there is no cure for these diseases. Inevitably, most of these patients will go blind. There are some treatments that slow the progression, but when those treatments stop working, what’s left for people?
Our treatment comes in as an end-stage treatment for these patients. So when the other treatments don’t work, our implant can help.
IDH: Any other startup challenges?
NW: Many entrepreneurs feel they just don’t know where to start. I think that’s the biggest challenge. In 2009 when we started a company, we didn’t know where to start either.
For entrepreneurs who have a great idea, it’s important to talk to professionals who have done this before. You want to be protective of your intellectual property, but at the same time you have to put a little bit out there to answer the important questions: Is this a great idea? Has someone thought of this before?
We were very fortunate to have that support early on. We had the mentorship and scientific support from UConn, and we had a lot of business development support from UConn Ventures, CCEI, CCAT, and Connecticut Innovations.
So I would tell people to get out there, find mentors, and don’t be afraid to talk to people because the resources are there. Just ask other entrepreneurs.
I enjoy being in the TIP building. You can go next door and bounce ideas off of the other entrepreneurs. These types of environments are what breed creative thinking and also camaraderie to help people through those tough times when it’s challenging being an entrepreneur.
IDH: In terms of something you’ve learned along the way in your entrepreneurial journey, do you have any advice?
NW: I always tell people you can’t be afraid to fail. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. I encourage others to take advantage of all opportunities available to them. You never know where they may lead you.
It can be uncomfortable when you are starting a company because there are so many unknowns. You always feel like you want to have the right answer. You don’t want to be vulnerable, but you have to put yourself out there. You have to be willing to take risks. If I already knew the answers, then we wouldn’t be here and the implant would already be on the market.
A lot of what we are doing is exploratory and new, but it has very high impact as well and can help a lot of people. You aren’t going to know all of the answers. So what I tell all the students I work with is: Talk to a lot of people, listen, and seek a lot of great mentors.
IDH: How are you involved with mentoring?
NW: We always take on some summer interns. We’ve had interns from UConn and Yale. We’ve mentored those students and taught them what it’s like to be at a startup type of environment. The students bring a number of resources to us in terms of experience and techniques that we need that we don’t have in house.
IDH: Looking to the future, where would you like the startup to be one year from now?
NW: Right now we are continuing to work on the in vivo development of the technology. These experiments are critical for us to get our product closer to clinical trials. We are also raising funds to help support IND filing with the Food and Drug Administration.
Interested in finding out more about the University of Connecticut Technology Incubation Program?